Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami Translated by Allison Markin Powell
Two Tokyo loners strike up an unusual friendship after a chance meeting in a bar.
Hiromi Kawakami is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary novelists, and her work has been translated into 13 languages. She has been awarded the Akutagawa Prize and was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize as well as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator, editor and publishing consultant. She has translated Osamu Dazai, Fuminori Nakamura and Kanako Nishi. She maintains the database www.japaneseliterature inenglish.com.
Tsukiko Omachi is a hard-drinking career woman in her late 30s, a bit of a loner who spends a lot of time eating and drinking by herself. One day, while stopping at a bar near the train station, she orders at the same time as the older man beside her, and the two realize they’ve ordered almost the exact same thing: tuna with fermented soy beans, fried lotus root and salted shallots. Tsukiko wonders, who is this person with such similar taste in food? They strike up a conversation, and she realizes that he was her Japanese teacher in high school 20 years ago. At first, she can’t remember his name, so she simply calls him “Sensei”—and even after they grow close, the habit sticks. She and Sensei strike up an odd friendship, often meeting at the same bar and drinking late into the night. Though they’re separated by a 30-year age difference, Tsukiko immediately realizes that, “I felt much more familiar with him than with friends my own age.”
Gradually, their relationship extends into daytime meetings, and the hint of something like romance begins to bloom between them, though only very gradually. This potential romance is complicated when they attend a high school reunion of sorts, and Tsukiko runs into Takashi Kojima, a former classmate. Though they get along well enough, Tsukiko still finds herself drawn to Sensei. Though they are an unlikely pair, and theirs is no typical love story, there is something touching about their subtle, heartfelt relationship, which unfolds in short chapters that mix traditional seasonal references with the kind of mundane, timeless elements of a solitary urban life in Japan.
As characters, both Tsukiko and Sensei offer fascinating windows into contemporary life in Tokyo. In many ways, Sensei is a prototypical, somewhat curmudgeon-y teacher, passionate about poetry—he quotes Sei Shonagon and Matsuo Basho—and always dressed very smartly in a wool suit and carrying a neat briefcase, ever prepared for whatever comes his way. Tsukiko initially assumes he is a widower, but the story is more complicated, and when he shares that story it becomes clear to the reader that he is not an entirely conventional man. Another personality quirk Sensei displays is an insistence on pouring his own drinks. Traditionally, women are supposed to pour drinks for men, and younger people are supposed to pour drinks for their elders, but Sensei enjoys pouring for himself.
Tsukiko is no help in this, because she isn’t the most graceful pourer. In fact, none of her habits are particularly ladylike, and while Sensei points these things out, he doesn’t do so out of judgment. Tsukiko is stubborn, independent and perfectly content not to follow the rules that define her gender. Eventually, we discover that she lives in the same neighbourhood as her mother, brother and brother’s kids, but she rarely visits them. She’s not exactly the black sheep of the family, and her mother seems to have stopped insisting that she quit her job, find a man and have babies. Still, her relationship with her family is somehow both affectionate and uncomfortable, so Tsukiko’s visits are rare.
Ultimately, what makes this book so oddly charming is the way Tsukiko and Sensei remain enigmatic to readers, even as they reveal themselves through the small objects and delicious foods of their daily lives.
More by the author
Twelve years after her husband’s death, Rei has moved on, yet she keeps returning to a mysterious seaside town that jogs some long-lost memory.
The Nagano Thrift Shop
Objects for sale at the shop appear commonplace, like the staff and customers. But for some, these objects hold many secrets of the human heart.